Children of Revolution

IV. Our Ragamuffins

WE were sitting on the broken steps of the bath-house overlooking the River Volga. It was noon hour in midsummer and the smaller boys and girls were resting after a lunch of potato soup flavored with sunflower oil. Some twelve boys and girls were gathered round us, brown bodies sticking through the rags in places, faces shiny with sweat which even in this sheltered place ran freely from us, brown legs and arms caked with dirt from the fields, which would be washed off later by a swim in the river.

Two husky barefoot girls of fifteen, bearing between them a long iron trough full of torn, grayish underwear, came from time to time out of the bath-house and made their way, resting occasionally, to the river's edge, where they soaked and shook the laundry for one hundred children. For our water connections from the hills were not yet finished, and the old water pipes that once ran to the grand duke's estate have been torn up and blocked by the new waterworks which is to give decent drink to the whole village of Alexeivka. The brown river is our total water supply at present; girls on duty in the kitchen wear themselves out carrying water.

But from across the fields comes the toot of our English thresher, which we have repaired and which is threshing grain now for a dozen peasants, all of whom pay us three pounds from every forty. From it alone we have now two months' supply of bread. So, in spite of the heat and the smells of long-dead soapy water that arise from the half rotten planks of our bath-house, in spite of the thin potato soup for lunch, in spite of the swollen feet of the girls who have been carrying water, we feel a little proud of our record. We have even a tractor; we are considered very progressive. The peasants know of us for many miles around, and the famine children travel to us for hundreds of miles along the river.

A girl of fifteen lies next to me, face down across her arms, stirring in uneasy slumber as the flies chase themselves across her neck. She is tired from work in the fields, and even here in the midst of flies and chatter, in a crumpled posture on the bath-house steps she drops off to sleep. Once she stirs restlessly, as more than a usual number of flies cross her arms.

"Sleep, little daughter, sleep," says a soft voice beside me, in tones of tender mockery. I look up I to see a young half-naked imp of twelve years grinning down at the older girl and addressing her with this teasing diminutive. It is Feodor, whom I have not met before. He has come to us only this summer. He is one of the smaller boys who tends the pigs.

His deep brown shoulders stick out through ragged gray burlap that forms his shirt, and his rounded brown legs jut through festoons of rags that make his trousers, and he has a constant smile that is half impish, half angelic, and a bushy head of hair that makes him look like an African savage. We have just been discussing the new school and club house which we are repairing, from the old barracks where the girls froze last winter. "I will give recitations," says Feodor. "I can recite pieces about Ilych" (Lenin).

"Where did you learn them?" I ask, and he answers: "In Yaroslav," mentioning a city almost a thousand miles to the north. And then, cheerfully grinning, he begins to tell me the story of his life.

"Nobody sent me to the colony," he says. "I just came myself. I look after the pigs in the morning and evening, but now it's too hot. I reap wheat, too, where the thistles are thick and we have to cut by hand. My father and mother died in the Hungry Year, so I set out traveling with my two sisters. We went anywhere that looked good."

"Did many places look good?" I ask him, and he nods. "In Samara and Saratov I worked in orchards. I went to Buzuluk and my sister stayed there in a children's home. They were smaller than I, and I found no place there. I went to Astrakan and to Yaroslav and to Sezeran."

Astrakan, a thousand miles to the south, and Yaroslav, a thousand miles to the north--to both of these towns Feodor had wandered since the Hungry Year and he had found them both good. "The people of Astrakan are all fine folk; they all give you bread," he says to me contentedly. And "I learned to read and write in Yaroslav and to speak pieces about Lenin."

When winter-time drew near he had managed to drift back to the village where his father died. There a kindly peasant took him in. "He let me stay all winter and he also fed me," says Feodor, for food must be mentioned separately.

"But why did you leave him?" I ask. Feodor smiles at my ignorance. "But there was never any bread left in spring," he says. "I left for bread."

"Yet he fed you when he had not bread of his own till harvest?" I ask in surprise....Then brown, ragged Feodor stares at me in indignant amazement. "But he was a friend of mine," he cries, surprised at my standards of neighborly help.

The sun creeps slowly around the edge of the bath-house. The heat of its rays touch the legs of the sleeping girl; she stirs uneasily, turns and awakens, brushing away the flies. "Do you like it here in the colony?" I ask Feodor. "Not bad," he answers. "I am going to stay here."

"Do you like the food?" I ask, thinking of the hard, black bread and thin potato soup. Feodor pats his little stomach and smiles. "Not so bad," he says. "I'm full."

"But don't you want a shirt?" I ask, gazing at his festoons of rags. "They don't give you any," he answers with the philosophy of experience.

"Then why do you like it here?" I persist. "Here I have a place for myself and a roof at night," he says cheerfully. Then suddenly noticing that the others are listening, he grows shy, and hides his shyness with pertness. "My tongue is tired," he says, sticking it out for me to see. Then grinning he shoves Jakov into the foreground, demanding that he also tell his story.

The whole upper half of Jakov's small brown body is bare, but his trousers have fewer holes in, and he has, rather surprisingly, a cap on his head. He also is twelve years old and looks after the pigs with Feodor.

"I come from beyond Volsk," he says, "through one village to another village, I've been in the refuges since the Hungry Year....." "Your father and mother died then?" I ask, and he nods in a matter of fact way as if that is understood. "My brother went away, I don't know where. My aunt took us to the refuge--me and my three sisters.

"From the refuge they took the children far away to the places of bread. Me they took to Paskov. Then the peasants came for us; the ones who had no children of their own took us to work for them. After two years they said there was food again on the Volga and all of us who wished could go home. The peasant wanted to keep me, but I wrote down that I wanted to go home."

"Can you write?" I ask him. "Oh, no," says Jakov, "but a teacher came to see me and asked if I wanted to go home and I said yes, because the peasant made me work very hard; he made me cut hay and harrow and drive the wagon. Also I wanted to see my sisters again. So I came back again to the refuge at Volsk. Here it was better, for you could work a day and then just walk around for a week. In summer we went to the country and gathered apples. But I ran away because the feeding was bad. Here in the colony it is better than the refuge; there is more food, and it is not much work driving pigs. Besides, there is shoe-making here and I want to be a shoe-maker like my father."

Then Lushnof tells his story. Lushnof is the clown of the colony. He can give imitations of the way Yeremeef talks to the idle girls--imitations that make even the ones he is making fun of laugh. Lushnof was born in the storied city of Tashkent, many days' journey away in the heart of Asia. His father was a railroad worker, who died in the Hungry Year, and his mother came back to her people on the Volga, and died there the year after.

"Then our aunt came to live with us, but she was a bad woman and beat us, and we didn't want her. I ran away at first, but then I went home and asked a neighbor, who was a good man, if he would move to our house and take care of us. He was an old revolutionist and after a while the Education Board gave him a paper that he should look after us, and they would give us food.

"But our wicked aunt went to the courts about it. For she wanted to live with us because we had a good house and a cow. There were four of us, one sister and three brothers. The old revolutionist went away at last because he was too busy with his work to bother with all those lawsuits that my aunt started, and she got the house. But we children would not live with her, and they gave the cow to my sister and put her in a children's home. The cow gives milk to all the children, but when my sister grows up and can leave the home, it will be her cow.

"My brothers also are in children's homes in the town. But I heard about this colony and asked to come here. I worked in the blacksmith shop; I want to learn about machines. Then when I know all about machines, I will get our house back, if it is still whole after my aunt has used it; and my brothers and sister will live together again and work in the town."

The girl who has been sleeping is now completely awake. She makes a teasing remark to Lushnof; he puts his foot on her shoulder and pushes her away. She jumps up with a laugh and stands threateningly above him. Lushnof carelessly sinks his teeth in an apple, biting without choice through the good spots and rotten spots. I see his teeth sink into a brown, rotten spot, but he eats it as cheerfully as a pig. He finishes it slowly, wormholes and all, saving just enough of the core to throw at the girl. It spatters on her blouse, adding one more spot to the many spots that darken her garments. She catches it expertly and hurls it back, hitting him on the forehead.

As Lushnof leans his head against my shoulder with a grin, I see that he is black and a little scaly under the hair. "Next time when you go for a swim you must wash your head," I remark. "There isn't any soap," he tells me.

Then a chorus of denunciation breaks out among the boys. "The girls have soap! They steal it from the laundry. They get soap to wash our clothes, but they put it in their boxes and keep it to wash with, and our clothes come back dirty. That is why the girls are always clean."....I change the subject by asking Lushnof if he still has the toothbrush and comb I gave him. Yes, he says, it is in his box. I started to ask why he never used it, but I thought better of it. The reason was clear enough. With no water nearer than the river, and no pockets in his ragged trousers to carry a toothbrush, and no handkerchief to put it in, how could he take a toothbrush to the river for the purpose of extraordinary cleanliness, and then walk all the way back to the house before going to work?

And now Lushnof begins telling about the civil war in his town. "We ran and hid in the cellar. Not our cellar for we didn't have any. But there was a high school near us with a fine big cellar and everyone went and hid there while the shooting went on. It was crammed full of people and we stayed there for two days. I saw a woman run out of her house with a baby in her arms and try to come to the cellar, and just then some soldiers on horses came round the corner fast, and before they could stop they ran right over the woman and killed her and the baby. We had bread with us in the cellar and there was a big barrel of water. But it was so crowded that you could not breathe. After two days the shooting stopped and we all came out.

"After that there was the Soviet Power in our town. Some of the people were for the Whites and some for the Reds. Then the bandit Popoff came up the Volga and gathered all the Communists in our town and killed them all. But the Red Army came and drove Popoff away again. Some said Popoff was a big bandit with thirty thousand men, but when he came nearer they said he had ten thousand men, and when he came into the town they said it was one thousand men, or maybe only five hundred."

And now Jakov grows excited with the war tales and begins chanting the deeds of the Red Guards, while his brown body sways back and forth in hero-worship. He half tells, half chants how the town of Volsk was "full of bourgeoisie, with fine officers' clothes from England.... "But the Reds came up the river, and they were dirty, dirty, dirty!........ and they had no shirts! .... and they had only broken shoes!.......... and they were hungry!......... but for all that they drove out the Whites, with the stylish clothes from England ! ... And they opened up homes for the children,, who before were sleeping in the streets.

Jakov smiles down in half-conscious approval of his own dirty, ragged, brown body as he chants his tale of the men who were just like him--but for all that they took the city and the land.